Nov 24, 2020

Axios Media Trends

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1 big thing: NYT and WaPo enter post-Trump era

The New York Times and The Washington Post have very different strategies for building the subscription news company of the future.

Data: Axios reporting and public filings; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: Sources tell Axios that the Post is nearing 3 million digital subscribers, a 50% year-over-year growth in subscriptions and more than 3x the number of digital-only subscribers it had in 2016.

  • Much of the Post's growth is attributed to back-end technology investments supported by The Post's owner Jeff Bezos.

The New York Times now has more than 6 million digital-only subscribers, nearly 3x its number from 2016.

  • The Times has been vocal about its strategy to build brand awareness to drive subscriptions, which includes everything from launching TV shows to hiring big-name journalists with loyal audiences and building products around them.
  • It's also focused on creating editorial products that it hopes will help make it a daily habit for readers, like its cooking and crossword apps.

Why it matters: Times' recent investments in stars — like Ezra Klein, Ben Smith, Kara Swisher, and Jane Coaston — has some media insiders wondering about The Post's plans.

  • The Post's culture isn't driven by boosting individual brands, and sources say the company has no interest in hunting for big personalities to boost products.
  • That doesn't mean it's not investing in editorial talent, but it's more focused on building editorial teams in topic areas that drive lots of user interest, like politics, international, tech, business, investigations and data journalism.
  • The Post is also investing in other areas, like video across social platforms, including TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube and Amazon-owned Twitch.

Much of the focus of The Post's investment has been in its proprietary advertising and publishing software tools, called Zeus and Arc, respectively.

  • Sources tell Axios that eventually, The Post hopes to build out a single sign-on authentication feature across all of the sites that license Zeus. Since February, more than 100 sites have signed with Zeus, including many local news outlets.

Yes, but: When it comes to subscription content services broadly, research shows that shiny objects like original content and hot talent tend to get people to subscribe, and functionality and lots of content options keeps them from leaving.

  • Sources wonder if the company's long-term focus on behind-the-scenes tech, and on journalism over journalists, will hamper its ability to compete with The Times for the buzz that drives new subscriptions.

The bottom line: The two news giants must chart a path forward in subscriptions without the news momentum from Donald Trump's presidency.

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2. The media's reckoning over Hispanic representation

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Monday met with The New York Times to discuss the lack of Latino representation at the paper.

  • Sources say the meeting was a candid conversation. Participants included business executives at The Times, including president and CEO Meredith Kopit Levien.
  • "The meeting demonstrated a commitment from the New York Times to ensure Latinos are fairly represented and accurately portrayed," said a source familiar with the meeting. "Hopefully there will be a future conversation with the news and editorial side of the company.”

The big picture: Leaders in the Hispanic community have for years been putting pressure on U.S. media companies to include more Hispanic representation in their coverage. The election has served as a wake-up call for many news outlets to take those calls seriously.

  • "These issues go beyond cultural cluelessness to not fully understanding what’s at play," says Fernando Espuelas, a Univision radio host.

What to watch: Media companies that target Hispanics have been making efforts to put more Hispanic voices in leadership positions.

  • Univision added four new independent directors to its board last week, all of whom are Hispanic.
  • Fuse Media, an English-language media company that serves mostly Hispanic and multicultural audiences, sold a majority stake to a Latino-led management group last week.
  • The Los Angeles Times last month pledged to become a more "inclusive and inspiring voice" of California after months of pressure from its Hispanic employees to hire more journalists that reflect the paper's readership.
3. Déjà vu: Social media giants look the same
Data: Axios research; Table: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Snapchat on Monday launched Spotlight, a video tab within its app that, like TikTok, distributes videos based more on how popular they are than on who created them. Facebook in August launched its TikTok competitor, called Reels.

The big picture: Tech titans used to focus on ways to create wildly different products to attract audiences. Today, they all have similar features, and instead differentiate themselves with their philosophies, values and use cases.

  • Instagram launched 10 years ago as a photo-sharing app for artists and design buffs, but now includes everything from live video to shopping to help those creators market and sell their ideas and goods.
  • Snapchat was created as a private messaging app between close friends, but today includes professionally-curated content, games and maps to help close friends develop deeper relationships.
  • Twitter was created as a public ideas platform, but over the years it's made it easier to share images, videos and audio to help users discuss current events.

What to watch: As social media companies adopt similar features, expect them to emphasize how their core values shape their versions of those features.

  • For example, Snapchat was deliberate about making sure Spotlight would be set to private mode by default and wouldn't include public metrics around things like comments, likes or shares.

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4. Nielsen wants to win streaming

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Nielsen, the decades-old TV and radio measurement company, is pushing to position itself to be the top vendor for streaming TV measurement. 

Why it matters: The industry loves to rag on Nielsen for being outdated, but it's still the most authoritative vendor in measuring tune-in for live television, and increasingly streaming TV content.

Driving the news: Netflix released new data Monday that said "The Queen's Gambit," a show about chess, was its most popular limited series ever with 62 million households tuning into the drama. 

  • But the entertainment giant offered no context for how it measures household viewership, leaving analysts to ponder how reliable the figure really is. 

Nielsen releases a weekly list of streaming minutes watched by show and streaming service. 

  • Its most recent data shows that The Queen's Gambit entered the Top 10 streaming shows in mid-October in terms of minutes per month streamed.
  • While the numbers don't sync up exactly with Netflix's proprietary data, Nielsen's measurement of Netflix content like BirdBox and Murder Mystery has in the past somewhat resembled data Netflix itself has released, suggesting it could be a helpful resource for validating proprietary figures.

Between the lines: Nielsen has also been working to integrate streaming measurement into its live TV ratings. In September it added digital TV views to its live TV measurement figures, so that views on services Sling or YouTube TV could be counted.

  • In an effort that's proved critical in developing trust among the industry for its content ratings, it's also pushed to do better at measuring digital TV ads. 
  • It recently announced a major deal to add 55 million devices across smart TVs and set-top boxes to boost its measurement capabilities.

The big picture: Because of the different dynamics between streaming and traditional TV, there's room for many measurement providers to exist alongside Nielsen, which focuses mostly on who watched what and for how long.

The bottom line: Subscription steaming companies like Netflix have started to warm up to Nielsen's streaming data now that they are competing against so many other services. But the idea of them actually committing to 3rd-party vendors releasing viewership numbers still feels far off.

5. Journalists face tough job prospects

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Recent departures, deals, layoffs and restructurings amid the pandemic have journalists questioning whether there's stability anywhere within the industry.

The big picture: Companies that were once considered the future of journalism, like Vice, Buzzfeed, Quartz and Vox Media, have let hundreds of people go this year.

By the numbers: In total, an estimated 11,000 journalism jobs were lost in the first half of the year. Thousands more are expected by year's end.

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6. 1 silver lining
Data: Reporters without Borders; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

Although the Trump administration has continued to attack the press over the past four years, several of his actions have actually led to legal cases that have set historic new precedents for press freedom.

Driving the news: A judge last week ruled that Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), acted unconstitutionally in investigating what he thought was reporters' bias against President Trump, NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

  • The ruling comes one month after a Superior Court in Washington, D.C. ruled that his efforts to fire and replace the board of the Open Technology Fund, an internet freedom nonprofit that receives funding from USAGM, were invalid.